Joshua J. Mark
published on 01 March 2011
Beer is one of the oldest intoxicating beverages consumed by human beings. In the west, evidence of early beer brewing has been confirmed by finds at the Sumerian settlement of Godin Tepe in modern-day Iran going back to between 3500-3100 BCE. The Sumerians loved beer so much they ascribed the creation of it to the gods and beer plays a prominent role in many of the Sumerian myths, among them, Inanna and the God of Wisdom and The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Sumerian Hymn to Ninkasi (written down in 1800 BCE but presumed to be much older) is both a praise song to the goddess of beer and a recipe for brewing. Brewers were female, most likely priestesses of Ninkasi, and early on beer was brewed by women in the home as a supplement to meals. The beer was a thick, porridge-like drink consumed through a straw and was made from bippar (barley bread) which was baked twice and allowed to ferment in a vat. By the year 2050 BCE beer brewing had become commercialized as evidenced by the famous Alulu beer receipt from the city of Ur dated to that time.
The Sumerians passed on their knowledge of brewing to the Babylonians who further commercialized it and passed laws regulating the beverage. The Code of Hammurabi from Babylon states, among other things, that tavern keepers who pour a 'short measure' of beer would be drowned. Through trade, beer travelled to Egypt where the people embraced the brew eagerly. Egyptians loved their beer as much as the Mesopotamians did and breweries grew up all around Egypt. As in Mesopotamia, women were the first brewers and beer was closely associated with the goddess Hathor at Dendera at an early stage. The Egyptian goddess of beer was Tenenit (from one of the Egyptian words for beer tenemu) and it was thought the art of brewing was first taught by the great god Osiris himself. Workers at the Giza plateau received beer rations three times a day and prescriptions for various ailments included the use of beer (over 100 recipes for medicines included the drink). Beer was thought to be healthier than drinking water and was consumed by Egyptians of all ages, the youngest to the oldest.
From Egypt, beer traveled to Greece (as evidenced by the similarity of another of the Egyptian's word for beer, zytum and the ancient Greek for the beverage, zythos). The Greeks, however, as the Romans after them, favored strong wine over beer and considered the grainy brew an inferior drink of barbarians. The Roman Emperor Julian even composed a poem extolling the virtues of wine as a nectar while noting that beer smelled like a goat. That the Romans did brew beer, however, is evidenced by finds at the Roman outpost in Regensburg, Germany (founded in 179 CE by Marcus Aurelius as Casta Regina) as well as at Trier and other places.
The Germans were brewing beer as early as 800 BCE and the early methods mirrored those of the ancient Sumerians. Women were the first brewers in Germany and beer was made from only fresh water, heated, and the best grains. The tradition continued down into the Christian era when monks took up the craft of brewing and sold beer from their monasteries. By 770 CE Charlemagne the Great was appointing brewers in France and, like the Babylonians before him, regulating the use of it. The Finnish Saga of Kalewala (written in the 17th century CE but based on much older tales) devotes more lines to beer than to the creation of the world and praises the effects of beer in such a way that they would easily be recognizable to anyone from ancient Sumeria to a modern-day drinker.
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